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by Michael Collins

January 5, 2012

Three critical technique differences

I ask every triathlete I coach, “How do you change your stroke when you swim in a wetsuit?” Few ever get the answer right. The say things like “Uh, well I float better so I don’t kick at all.” I rarely get much beyond the mention of the increased buoyancy and using the legs less or not at all.

I believe there are three critical technique changes required to maximize the speed and efficiency of using a wetsuit in triathlon competition.

  1. Use a lighter kick – but still kick!
  2. Use a straighter arm recovery (when swimming in a long sleeve suit)
  3. Use a slower stroke rate than when not swimming in a suit

Let’s go through each of these in more detail.

1. Use A Lighter Kick

Because the wetsuit adds substantial buoyancy, a hard kick with a lot of knee bend will result in just kicking the hell out of the surface and making a lot of splash, but will give little forward propulsion or help in balance. The result is wasted effort in the form of higher heart rate than is required to hold that speed. However, not kicking at all—just dragging the legs along—results in too little core rotation and it overworks the arms and shoulders to pull the body through the water.

Many people who think they are not kicking still do a GIGANTIC scissor kick every time they breathe to gain stability. It definitely works to do that, but also creates significant drag as the legs create a parachute effect. By keeping a steady and narrow kick the athlete can maintain correct body rotation, cadence and breathing without compromising body position.

2. Use A Straighter Arm Recovery

When swimming in a long-sleeved wetsuit, if you try to use a high elbow recovery with fingertips recovering close to the water surface and armpit, you will wear out your shoulders sooner and not be able to keep an easy and rhythmic cadence. When swimming with a wetsuit, I like to see whole body rotation, where the swimmer tips back and forth from one hip to the other by shifting the body weight back and forth. It’s important to recover the arm in front of the bodyline and not above or behind which will slow cadence and work against the force of gravity.

3. Use A Slower Stroke Rate

If you use a slow stroke rate without a wetsuit you will start to sink between strokes if you don’t have great balance or buoyancy. With a wetsuit, there is a lot more leniency to swim with a slower stroke rate and keep better forward momentum. 

Most triathletes program their swimming technique and stroke rate while swimming in a pool without a wetsuit, where the effects of gravity and buoyancy are very different than with a suit on. Additionally, even if swimming in cool water, many athletes will start to overheat in their wetsuit if they use the same stroke rate and kicking effort that they do when they train in a pool. You cannot dissipate the heat from your body as easily in a wetsuit.

This is one of the reasons triathletes often feel AWESOME for the first few hundred meters in the swim when they are fresh and the wetsuit has not gained any weight by soaking up water. However, half a mile into the swim with the suit has soaked up water that is heated from the work expenditure and become heavier, it becomes difficult to maintain the same cadence used in pool swimming without a suit.

I recently did a set in a 25-yard pool, where I swam 5 x 100 on 1:30 with a wetsuit and was comfortably holding 1:04 with 12-13 strokes per length. Next I took the suit off and swam 5 x 100 on 1:30 with no gear and held 1:08-:09 with 14-16 strokes and more effort in my kick. If I had swam in the wetsuit at the same stroke rate and kick that I did without I would have likely swum about a 1:01 or 1:02 on the first one and then faded to much slower as I overheated and built up heart rate and shoulder fatigue from working against the suit.

Suggestions for dealing with the differences of regular swimming to wetsuit swimming

  1. Do weekly pool swimming intervals in your wetsuit, once a week, at or faster than race pace starting at least four weeks out from racing season. You don’t have to keep the suit on for the whole practice. Do about the same warm-up you would do at a race and then bang out a set equal to your race distance.
  2. Do a fair amount of swimming with a pull buoy to simulate the wetsuit position if it is just way too hot to use your wetsuit in the pool.
  3. Do drills that teach the straighter arm recovery, but still try to achieve a high elbow and shallow pull under water.

Sample Pool Sets for Wetsuit Racing

I recommend doing this practice two to three times over the last month leading up to an important race.

Warm-up w/ wetsuit on

200 swim easy with 10 fast strokes thrown in each lap in the 2nd 100

Main Set for a Sprint Race

3 x 50 Fast @ :10-:20 rest, faster than goal race pace. Use easy speed.

6 x 100 @ :20-:30 rest, holding best possible average

3 x 50 Fast, faster than goal race pace

Jump out of the pool and remove wetsuit quickly

Get back in and repeat set with a pull buoy

Main Set for Olympic Distance

4 x 50 fast @ :10-:20 rest, faster than goal race pace. Use easy speed

4 x 300 @ :20-:30 rest, holding best possible average

4 x 50 fast, faster than goal race pace

Jump out of the pool and remove wetsuit quickly

Get back in and do sprint distance set above with a pull buoy

Main Set for 70.3 Distance

4 x 50 fast @ :10-:20 rest, faster than goal race pace. Use easy speed

4 x 500 @ :20-:30 rest, holding best possible average

4 x 50 fast, faster than goal race pace

Jump out of the pool and remove wetsuit quickly

Get back in and do sprint or Olympic distance set above with a pull buoy

Main Set for Ironman Distance

4 x 50 fast @ :10-:20 rest, faster than goal race pace. Use easy speed

4 x 1000 @ :30-1:00 rest, holding best possible average

Take wetsuit off after #2 if the water is really hot and use a pull buoy

4 x 50 fast. Faster than goal race pace

Jump out of the pool and remove wetsuit quickly

Get back in and do sprint distance set above with a pull buoy

Michael Collins coaches the 400+ member Nova Masters Swimming as well as Multisports Orange County. He specializes in video analysis and technique improvement for swimming, cycling and running. He can be reached at mcollins@multisportsOC.com


Categories:

  • Technique and Training
  • Open Water

Tags:

  • Kicking
  • Recovery
  • Stroke-Technique